- The pandemic has forced universities to bring their courses online.
- This is just one step along the road to a new educational paradigm, however.
- We can expect a new model to emerge once COVID-19 has passed.
The pandemic that has shuttered economies around the world has also battered education systems in developing and developed countries. Some 1.5 billion students — close to 90% of all primary, secondary and tertiary learners in the world — are no longer able to physically go to school. The impact has been dramatic and transformative as educators scramble to put in place workable short-term solutions for remote teaching and learning, particularly in emerging markets, where students and schools face additional challenges related to financing and available infrastructure.
While each level of education faces its unique challenges, it is the higher education segment that may end up, by necessity, triggering a learning revolution. Universities are distinctive in that their students are both old enough to handle the rigours of online work and technologically savvy enough to navigate new platforms. The real challenge lies for the institutions in which they have enrolled. Can traditional, campus-based universities adapt by choosing the right technologies and approaches for educating and engaging their students? The successes and failures that unfold should give us all a better grasp of what is possible.
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Right now, video-conferencing apps like Zoom and Webex are throwing universities a lifeline. However, lecturers are still struggling to maintain the same depth of engagement with students they could have in a classroom setting. They need to find solutions — and fast — to avoid a dip in the quality of education they are providing. Online education platforms such as Coursera, an IFC client with a global presence, can play a useful role by tapping their expertise in online programme design, choice of tech platform, and digital marketing to develop the best content either with or for the traditional players.
With the online segment still comprising a small fraction of the $2.2 trillion global higher education market — less than 2%, according to market intelligence firm HolonIQ — the market is ripe for disruption. The appetite from students for online offerings will likely grow because of COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, many universities were seeing declines in enrolment for campus-based programmes and parallel increases in uptake of their online courses. With COVID-19, we are seeing how yesterday’s disruptors can become today’s lifeguards. While traditional institutions once viewed online education as a threat, it has come to their rescue.
The adoption of online solutions in recent months has been unprecedented. In the short term, educators are applying a ‘first aid’ solution by switching entirely from in-person to remote instruction, a move that has been forced upon them by sudden mandatory campus closures. But they are quickly realizing that remote learning is just a baby step experiment in the long journey to offering online education that has been conceived as such, which includes effective student engagement tools and teacher training. Some of the partnerships sparked between universities, online education companies and tech providers may continue beyond the pandemic.
As painful and stressful a time as this is, it may fashion a long overdue and welcome rebirth of our education systems. The pandemic has been a great leveller in a way, giving all stakeholders (educators, learners, policy-makers and society at large) in developed and developing countries a better understanding of our current education systems’ vulnerabilities and shortcomings. It has underscored how indispensable it is for our populations to be digitally literate to function and progress in a world in which social distancing, greater digitalization of services and more digitally-centered communications may increasingly become the norm. More fundamentally, COVID-19 is causing us to challenge deep-rooted notions of when, where, and how we deliver education, of the role of colleges and universities, the importance of lifelong learning, and the distinction we draw between traditional and non-traditional learners.
This pandemic has also made people realize how dependent we are on so-called low-skilled workers to keep our lives going. During shutdowns, lockdowns, curfews, it’s these workers who are on the front lines, working multiple shifts to maintain delivery and take care of our basic needs. Over time, automation will continue to eat into these jobs. While there will always be services provided by low-skilled workers, most new jobs will require higher skills levels. Being able to reskill and upskill in this rapidly changing world is not only a necessity but an economic imperative.
COVID-19 has struck our education system like a lightning bolt and shaken it to its core. Just as the First Industrial Revolution forged today’s system of education, we can expect a different kind of educational model to emerge from COVID-19.